The Politics of Bear Hunting, Jersey Style

Black bears are constantly searching for food in garbage containers.
Black bears are constantly searching for food in garbage containers.


To the rest of the US, New Jersey is an amalgam of highways, boardwalks, oil tanks, tract housing and storage warehouses, stretching from New York City to Philadelphia – an ocean of water to the East and a sea of Italians in the middle. Those of us who make our lives here know better: the Garden State is aptly named. State and county forests abound, for those who care to look. Fish of all kinds inhabit our streams and rivers, while a diversity of wildlife matches that of any state in the union.


Being the most densely populated state, however, presents New Jersey with unique challenges with respect to human-wildlife interaction. When they concern the burgeoning black bear population, these challenges morph into conflict – with bears and among state residents. The passions erupt over sensibilities as much as science, as reflected in the on-again/off-again history of the annual bear hunt.


History


The 1960s saw a decline in the NJ bear population to the point that there was nary a bear to be seen in the whole state. Though excessive hunting has been implicated in this near-eradication, the tremendous growth in development and the subsequent habitat loss must bear equal if not more responsibility. Having a healthy fear of humans in those days, encroachment drove black bears across the Delaware River. In any case, state authorities wisely put an end to bear seasons in 1970. After nearly two decades without hunting, the black bear numbers saw a significant uptick.


By the dawn of the 21st century, NJ wildlife biologists estimated a total count of nearly 3,300 statewide. Animal rights and bear advocates disputed that number, claiming fewer than half of the government figure. All agreed that the species had rebounded significantly, the most serious interaction occurring when a bear injured a two-year old boy. In response to this fact – and the growing number of complaints from homeowners, farmers and other residents – the New Jersey Fish and Game Council authorized the first black bear season in 33 years. The 2003 hunt yielded 328 bears.


The following year saw the hunt suspended by the state Supreme Court, which sought a more consistent determinations policy prior to any further hunts. The Division of Fish and Wildlife complied, and a hunt was again authorized for 2005, with hunters taking 298 bears. That same year, Jon Corzine was elected to the governorship, and he proceeded to prevent any bear hunts during his four years in office. In 2009, Corzine was turned out of office by former federal prosecutor Christopher Christie, who agreed to re-institute the annual hunt in 2010. A record 589 bears were killed that year.

While anti-hunting groups continually litigate this matter, their success in court has been poor. Just hours before this posting, they again lost an appeal regarding the 2011 hunt.

Policy


One reason the bear advocacy organizations fail in court is the great pains that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection – through its Division of Fish and Wildlife – takes to execute a broad range of bear management policies, hunting being but one. The DEP/DFW has conducted a broad campaign of public education in order to keep contact with black bears to a minimum. Information on garbage management is widely disseminated, and residents are encouraged to purchase bear-resistant receptacles. DEP actually gave one township that was plagued with troublesome bears a grant to purchase them for homes and businesses. Habitually scavenging bears, however, sometimes require the application of rubber bullets or pepper spray to make them more fearful of human interaction. At other times, bears are tranquilized by police and removed to remote locations. Aggressive bears, -- known as Category 1 – are lethally dispatched by authorities.

Research by DFW is ongoing. Tag and release programs, radio-collaring and data collection from dead bears all give the agency important information on travel range, habitat behavior, reproduction and longevity. Such measurements are demonstrating a fanning out of the animals from the northwest corner of the state to points south and east.


Hunters


The failure of animal rights groups to make their case effectively is rooted in their failure to tell the truth about their real – well – beef. As noted above, state officials routinely kill the most brazen bears – those that try to enter cars or homes, show up repeatedly in populated areas, or have a record of mauling or injuring people, livestock and pets. This, of course, is carried out on the taxpayers dime. Hunter based control, on the other hand, is underwritten by the hunters themselves, culling the overall population in order to make the other methods of management more effective. Yet cost-effectiveness is not a principal concern of the hunt opponents.


The core of the controversy is a clash of worldviews. Is there a moral hierarchy that places humans above bears and other animals? If so, what is the difference between a public official euthanizing a bear or a hunter taking one for meat or a pelt? Enjoyment? Yes, most hunters enjoy the activity, whether they are successful or not. But to accuse sportsmen and women of bloodlust demonstrates the ignorance of the accusers. Hunting organizations take great care to promote fair chase and restraint. The NJ DFW establishes rigorous guidelines regarding the conditions necessary for a quick and clean kill.


It could be that bears hold a special place in many hearts, independent of animal rights philosophy. If this is the case, it is understandable. Ursus Americanus is a majestic and interesting creature, but also a very dangerous one. True, nobody has been killed by a bear in New Jersey in 100 years. This is small comfort, however. They kill and maul all over North America; there is no reason to believe they have a soft spot for New Jerseyans. Editorialists, wildlife biologists, the government, hunters and non-hunters are predominantly in favor of the hunt. It should proceed.


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